Ideas of North: Alexina Louie’s latest composition a real triple threat

Alexina Louie's Triple concerto a real firecracker.

The Canadian composer Alexina Louie has written for orchestras and for chamber quartets, but her next world premiere was unique. She had never written something that featured a high-powered and unique trio of violinists.

The three players are the concertmasters of their respective orchestras: Jonathan Crow, of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Wan, of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Yosuke Kawasaki of the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

She was approached by the TSO which wanted the piece for its Canada 150 series of commissions. and they had partnered with the other two ensembles.

Working with three different concertmasters from three different orchestras and their conductors meant work with some pretty strong personalities, all of whom know each other.

Wan and Crow play in the play in the New Orford String Quartet. They alternate who plays first and second violin. (The New Orford String Quartet will give a free performance on Oct. 4 at noon in the NAC’s new atrium. For information, please see

Violinists Jonathan Crow (TSO), Andrew Wan (MSO) and Yosuke Kawasake (NACO) rehearse. Photo: David Kawai

“When you are dealing with the leaders of three orchestras, you can’t give one of them more notes than the others. I was mindful of that I truly was.”

She also knew the orchestras well. Each has played her music many times. NACO, for example, has taken an MSO-commissioned piece by Louie to northern Canada and another to China. And her relationship with the TSO goes back to the days when Andrew Davis was at the podium.

“Each music director and conductor has his or her own personality. You have to know your piece and be strong in  your own vision.”

This piece, which is known as the Triple Concerto for Three Violins and Orchestra, has three movements.

“They had strong stipulations for this piece. They even gave me a list of percussion instruments to choose from, I haven’t had that before. I’m usually left to figure all that out.”

She used some instruments that were not on the list including a harp and Crotales (antique cymbals)

“I had to get them approved by three orchestras.”

Louie likes to work with percussion because, she says, “it provides colour and atmosphere and beautiful shimmering timbres.”

Louie’s Triple will first be played by the TSO on Sept. 27. The piece next moves to Ottawa where NACO will play it on Oct. 3 and finally it will be played in Montreal by the MSO in a few months.

“I had to think about writing this Triple. There aren’t many templates for this. At first I couldn’t find any. As I talked about the piece with colleagues someone mentioned that Vivaldi had written a triple concerto for three violins.

“So I listened to the Vivaldi.”

When it came to writing for the trio she says she tried to imagine them as one instrument.

“The form of it posed an interesting challenge for me.”

Louie doesn’t put her music in a box labelled this or that. Other people can do that.

“I write the music and I don’t really think about what category the music fits in. I write music that suits the situation and the players. If I’m writing a piece like this one it takes on a different dimension than if I am writing for a chamber quartet or a different personality.

“I try to hone in on the personality of the performer. My music takes different directions although the technique is always there.

“I spent as much time as I need to spend on a piece making it as good as I possibly can.”

She says she knows there are simple solutions available but she doesn’t want to use them. Simple isn’t always artistic.

In her Triple she has given the players strong, virtuosic music for them to play.

She says she didn’t talk to the performers before writing the music.

One issue that cropped up immediately was a matter of time. The  duration of the piece was set at 15 minutes. She needed to figure out a way to give each player their minutes.

“Things are plastic and they change. I’m not just writing a piano piece; it involves many other elements. There are lots of interactions between the three of them and it shifts. You’ll see it on the stage.There is a dynamism between the three of them.

“If you have the three of them playing sizzling lines and transferring those lines to each other, you want them to be heard. You don’t want them buried by the orchestra. There are easy solutions, but does that fulfill my needs as an artist, as a creator.”

The complexities of the piece meant a time-consuming process and pages and pages of handwritten notes and hours on her piano. That’s how she composes.

“It took me so long to write because I am always weighing all these things. I wanted an interaction, I wanted the orchestra to support them.”

So she employed such things as pizzicato from the strings on the orchestras to allow the soloists to shine. She was very careful in her use of brass. One trombone note can overwhelm a violin.

“I didn’t want them to learn the notes and not be heard.”

She did have a lucky meeting with Crow and Wan who came to her home. The two were in Toronto at the same.

“It was really a lively situation. It was very helpful to have them here.” They gave her insights into their respective orchestras.

“The players were excited by what they saw and that made me feel good about the piece. It was a very  rare opportunity. These are the kinds of experiences I am looking for now.” Despite the hard work, Louie is glowing about the commission.

“How could you not like this project. Who gets the opportunity to write for three incredible violinists and have the pieces played by their orchestras led by their conductors.”

The commission is, in her mind, an example of Canadian cultural achievement.

It isn’t trite to hear when Louie says she values being Canadian. She is the granddaughter of a new Canadian from China who landed in  Vancouver not speaking a word of English. She got her basic musical training in Vancouver but went to the California to study.

“I ended up staying there, teaching and getting a life experience. But I always felt Canada was my home. At a certain point in my life it was time to come home because I wanted to contribute to this wonderful country.

“There are a lot of different things that drove me back here. There were some uncomfortable things that happened. There was a turbulence there.

“Of course, we’re not a perfect country by any means.” But the more egalitarian Canadian society appealed to her.

She came to Toronto in 1980 where no-one knew her name.

“I had to make my way.” She was lucky though and started to have success right away.

With her Triple concerto, she says she wanted to write a piece that reflected her feelings about the country.

The end of the piece is celebratory, she says. “This kind of makes sense.”

For Louie, the ultimate reward is hearing her work played. It is why she agonizes over her keyboard.

“It’s not perfectionism, it’s the sonority that I’m reaching for. When I get it I recognize it. Sometimes that takes time.

“If you are entering this world of composing, which I feel is very special, why not do the best you can.”

National Arts Centre Orchestra
Ideas of North Festival
Where: Southam Hall
Programme: Sibelius Tapiola; Alexina Louie Triple Concerto for three violins and orchestra; Sibelius Symphony No. 1
Soloists: Jonathan Crow, Yosuke Kawasaki, Andrew Wan
When: Oct. 3 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:
In town: Alexina Louie will chat with ARTSFILE’s Natasha Gauthier at 7 p.m. on the Canal Lobby Stage.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.